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Using athletes as brand spokespersons can be risky—why Olympians are not the best choices

by | Jun 12, 2024 | Public Relations

If history repeats itself, and it certainly will during the Summer Olympic Games in Paris (from July 26 to August 11), some athletes will not only take home gold medals, but will win another type of gold—lucrative endorsement deals with brands.

Also if history repeats itself, as it certainly will in Paris, some athletes will upset their present and future sponsors by making controversial statements.

I say that with certainty because I’ve been involved in the sports scene for the better part of my working days, first as a journalist and then when working at public relations firms, including an almost 25-year stint at Burson-Marsteller, where I was senior vice president sports marketing, traveled the world as a media adviser to high government officials and also was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles on national and international sports and non-sports programs.

So at first glance it would seem that I am a big proponent of companies using athletes as spokespersons. “It ain’t necessarily so,” as George Gershwin wrote in “Porgy and Bess.”

The reason for my ambivalence regarding using athletes as publicity spokespersons goes back many years, even though I have recommended athletes to hawk client’s products and positions for those who insisted on using an athlete, or where there was a natural fit.

Despite working on many publicity marketing programs that utilized athletes, I always was extremely cautious about whom to use and always emphasized to clients that the “athlete of the moment” is not always the best choice.

That’s because the actions of many of the “athletes of the moment” have generated negative press coverage, including superstars A-Rod and Tiger Woods

And they’re not the only ones: Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Michael Vick, Michael Phelps, Mike Tyson, Kobe Bryant, Marion Jones, Ben Roethlisberger, Ryan Braun, Antonio Brown and two who were thought to be world class inspirations as role models, Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pistorius. Peyton Manning joined the list when the Denver Broncos quarterback was named in a lawsuit filed by several women against the University of Tennessee in which they said the school violated Title IX regulations in the way it has handled reports of sexual assaults by student-athletes. Some brands that sponsored these athletes were mentioned in the media coverage.

The most recent athlete who received criticism for his viewpoints is Kansas City Chiefs place kicker Harrison Butker, after he made a series of what some critics called antiquated statements at the Benedictine College commencement ceremony on May 11.

During his 20-minute speech, Butker, one of the National Football League’s best kickers, alluded to “dangerous gender ideologies centered around Pride Month, the celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride.”

He also said women should prioritize their vocation as mothers, wives and homemakers, and urged men to “fight against the cultural emasculation of men.”

Butker also brought national politics into play during the speech by criticizing President Biden’s leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic and his stance on abortion.

Said Butker, “Our own nation is led by a man who publicly and proudly proclaims his Catholic faith, but at the same time is delusional enough to make the Sign of the Cross during a pro- abortion rally. He has been so vocal in his support for the murder of innocent babies that I’m sure to many people it appears that you can be both Catholic and pro-choice.”

Butker drew wide-ranging criticism for his speech, including from an order of Nuns who posted the following on Facebook: “The sisters of Mount St. Scholastica do not believe that Harrison Butker’s comments in his 2024 Benedictine College commencement address represent the Catholic, Benedictine, liberal arts college that our founders envisioned and in which we have been so invested.”

The National Football League, which in recent years has conducted aggressive outreach programs to attract women fans, said Butker’s views do not reflect those of the league.

“Harrison Butker gave a speech in his personal capacity. His views are not those of the NFL as an organization. The NFL is steadfast in our commitment to inclusion, which only makes our league stronger,” the NFL said in a statement to news organizations.

While some brands might be attracted to a personality that is not afraid to express a controversial opinion, other brands might be leery to be affiliated with a spokesperson who publicly expresses opinions that can turn off potential customers.

Here’s what I have always told clients regarding using athletes as publicity spokespersons:

  • Prowess on the sports field cannot prevent past or present misbehavior from being reported on.
  • Why chance having a company or its product represented by athletes who have misbehaved when there are so many other options.
  • Some athletes represent so many products that consumers and the media don’t take their endorsements seriously.
  • During interviews, reporters will concentrate on the athlete’s achievements, often not even mentioning the product being hawked.
  • Most of the time the story will say something like, “So and So is a spokesperson for the XYZ Company.” and then delve into things like sports. (Some PR people think that’s a good placement. I don’t. Unless the story contains some client talking points, I consider it a strikeout.)
  • Unlike the past, when sports stars weren’t making so much money, it was easy to make certain that they would not say anything controversial. Today, it’s impossible to keep athletes from expressing opinions and/or becoming activists in cultural and political causes, occasionally dragging their unhappy sponsoring brands into the story.
  • Current athletes probably have been written about many times regarding their play on the field, making it highly unlikely that a journalist for general news outlets would do a story just because of a product endorsement deal. These types of stories usually end up in trade pubs.

When the subject is sports, history repeats. It’s only a matter of time before another supposedly stellar athlete product pitchmen becomes a fallen star. (And while we’re at it, let’s not forget the troubling history of those “builders of character,” the coaches.)

Celebrity endorsers aren’t only pricey, they’re risky. Before you take the plunge and suggest an international, national, or even a local celebrity, ask yourself a few tough questions:

  • Are you being smart or just lazy by recommending athletes for a sports promotion?
  • What’s the risk that an athlete may do something during your promotion that might upset your client?
  • Is there a better way that I can show my client true creativity?
  • Am I suggesting a sports marketing tie-in because I can’t think of anything else?

The answers are almost always “yes.” Using an athlete or non-athlete celebrity as a spokesperson is almost always a sign of a lack of creativity.

PR people should consider taking the money you would otherwise hand over to an already well-paid celebrity and invest it in developing original creative publicity ideas that will make your brand stand out from the clutter of athletes endorsing products. Using a celebrity should always be the last option unless the person is a natural fit for the product or program, which most are not.

Before recommending athletes as a publicity spokesman, PR practitioners should also take into consideration how media coverage of sports has changed. The days when writers would cover up the antics of a Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle are in the distant past.

In years past, there were only a few athletes misbehaving incidents covered by the media. And it had to be a major transgression. But things have changed. The “if it happens off the playing field, it’s not a sports story” attitude has long disappeared among much of the media, but not all, especially the white-washing of unsportsmanlike conduct of athletes by game day play-by-play announcers and their analysts, and particularly by NBCUniversal Olympic reporters who practice self-censorship while neglecting to report on anything controversial about the Olympics, even when staged in totalitarian countries which are enemies of the U.S.

Does this mean that marketers or publicists should avoid using athletes to gain publicity for products or events? Not necessarily. However, the following should be capitalized in bold type in every marketing or public relations play book: “The most prominent athletes of the moment are not necessarily the best choices.” And of all the athletes, the ones I would recommend the least to U.S. brands are Olympians, even though I believe that the Olympics are the greatest of all sporting events, despite the convoluted and autocratic actions of the International Olympic Committee.

Here’s why I believe Olympians are not the best choice:

Over the years I have recommended many Olympians as spokespersons for Olympic-related clients. But in general they are not my first choice. Here’s why:

  • The coverage of the Olympics by U.S. media is short-lived, a few weeks prior to the start of the competitions and several weeks, if that long, after the curtain closes on the spectacle.
  • Conversely, American media covers other sports year-round, like football, baseball and basketball, thus making it more likely that the media will be more amenable to interview an athlete from those sports to comment on how the games have changed over the years and related subjects.
  • Olympians receive minimal to none media attention in the U.S. after an Olympics, because the interest of U.S, reporters regarding the Olympics has a short shelf life.
  • U.S. football, baseball and basketball are tailoring their schedules to include playing games across the pond and in other areas of our planet. Thus, foreign media will most likely be receptive to interview well-known athletes, which include some of the most famous who are not U.S.-born. This provides an opportunity for a brand to craft an international publicity program around one player.
  • In my experience, the athletes best able to disseminate brands’ talking points during media interviews are former stars who have been out of the media spotlight for a while. That’s because the media is happy to interview stars of the past, nostalgia being a big part of sports coverage. It’s easier for someone not on the sports scene for a number of years to tell a reporter what they are doing now and work in client talking points. And reporters are more likely to leave in the talking points as part of the story.
  • All too often when selecting an athlete to deliver the brand message, the deciding factor is on the field stats. In my opinion that’s wrong. The way an athlete acts outside of the arena has always been more important to me when recommending an athlete spokesperson. Example: Even though some of Harrison Butker’s teammates said they disagree with his views made during his commencement speech, they said they value him as a person because he treats everyone with respect and kindness.
  • I always advised clients that using an athlete with a checkered past can result in unfavorable media coverage for both the individual and the brand.

Before deciding on an athlete as a spokesperson, remember what your mother might have said when an early romance went sour, “There are plenty of fish in the sea.” The same is true when deciding on an athlete spokesperson.

Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He has been a key player on Olympic marketing programs and also has worked at high-level positions directly for Olympic organizations. During his political agency days, he worked on local, statewide and presidential campaigns. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com.

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